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EXCLUSIVE – Is Government as a Platform the path to purely user-centric services? - The Lab+ process and outcomes

Screenshot from ‘Lab+ future states series: conversational services’ video/ Credit: Lab+, Service Innovation Lab, DIA, NZ

“User-centric” is probably the most popular aspirational adjective for “government services” at the moment. Governments around the world are trying to transform entrenched systems and processes, with the objective of reshaping the way they interact with and serve their citizens. Progress is often impeded by a variety of constraints.  

A small team within the New Zealand (NZ) government, which is one of the most digitally advanced in the world by any measure, embarked on a project earlier this year to test if the kind of fundamental, radical change which would be required to convert the rhetoric into reality is achievable and to explore possible paths for accomplishing that change.

Through a 10-weel experiment, called Lab+, the Service Innovation Team in the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) in New Zealand tested a new model of government services based on the concept of “government as a platform.”

In May, we spoke to Ms. Pia Waugh, who was leading Lab+ and reported on the ideas and objectives. After the project concluded in June, we got in touch with Ms. Waugh again to learn about the process and outcomes of the experiment.

         When the project started, it was noted that there are few tangible published examples of what “good” looks like, particularly relating to “integrated services”. It means different things to different people.                              

So, one of the objectives of Lab+ was to explore potential visions of ‘good’ in the future. And everything would be published, the hypotheses, discoveries, outcomes and output. Ms. Waugh described ‘rabid, open transparency’ as a key element of Lab+, saying, “Making sure that we publish everything is not a matter of fun. It is not a matter of being nice. It is about a more scientific approach to the design and delivery of government.” The principle is drawn from the methodology of open source, science and peer review.

Certain other systemic constraints were observed over the course of this exploration. Firstly, the iterative improvement approach which is increasingly popular today, can end up inadvertently reinforcing the status quo. Also, agile and user centred design methods are often constrained by the agency view, the mandate, legacy technology limitations, among other things.

Lab+ was about ignoring the status quo and starting from a tabula rasa, ignoring the technical and legislative constraints and focusing on the needs of people and the community. “Life is about people, not agencies,” Ms. Waugh had said at the beginning of Lab+. So, the Lab+ team looked at services purely through the lens of the user and attempted to design a future state that could include the public sector, the private sector or the community or any combination of the three.

Lab+ involved 6 agencies, 6 companies and a lot of enthusiastic supporters more broadly. The work program for Lab+ moving forward will be announced in coming weeks and you can join the Service Innovation announcements mailing list to keep up with news.

The value of “Government as a Platform”

The team also explored the value proposition of “Government as a Platform” as a model for delivering better government services, and also enabling a diverse and scalable ecosystem of service delivery to meet the increasing diversity of user needs emerging. Incorporating a platform approach to service delivery enables civic and private sector actors to deliver additional convenience, function and service to meet the broad spectrum of public needs that government by itself could not.

For government itself the benefits start with short-term cashable savings and averted costs. Trials show reduced call centre contacts, lower staff contact, and more rapid processing of requests. The scale and scope benefits in moving from trials to a broad Government as a Platform approach are much larger, as government could use common components and management.

         As other partners meet an increasingly diverse set of public needs, discontent with government is reduced. Government is enabled to focus its efforts strategically, and on what it does best.                              

For the public, time and convenience are important benefits. Certain life events require lots of government contact at once, which can be a negative experience if services are disjointed. This time impact can be large for those running a business, or managing amongst disadvantage.

The economy benefits from enabling innovation and entrepreneurship. Government-enabled networks have been a foundation of productivity. Government as a Platform has demonstrated the potential to enable economic and public good.

Finally, if government does not adopt the tools driving economic productivity gains, it is forced to take a rising share of inputs or face funding cuts.

The process- Discover, Design and Test

Lab+ started with two hypotheses: 1) Does “government as a platform” provide a practical path to the future state of government services?; and 2) Can the neutral permissive environment of a service innovation lab support service delivery teams to build people centered integrated services, to build a better thing?

As part of the discovery process, the team collected as much as possible of the already existing user research across government. User research was conducted to test if the no-agency lens or even a no-government lens did result in any change.

The team discovered and designed some informed future state concepts, which was purely driven by the user needs. Finally, all these concepts were tested with users to produce insights and validations.

The future states

Conversational services

While interacting with government, many users talk about wanting some assistance, because the interactions can be complicated and having someone (or something, users didn’t mind clever bots) who understands the context can dramatically speed up the process.

So, a conversational service is about real-time resolution of issues encountered by users, with third parties drawn in as required, with user permission, and having a persistent and accessible record of what was going on.

To take an example which was studied, suppose a person has turned 65 since last logging on to their online banking. When the person logs in next time, he/she receives a notification about not being eligible for NZ Super[1]. The user asks, “why is that?”. The system replies, “You aren’t eligible because you haven’t been in New Zealand for 5 years or more since turning 50.”

The person knows that is wrong. So, they click into a conversation and start communicating with an agent. Once the situation is explained, the agent asks if they can verify the information with Immigration. With user permission, an Immigration case worker joins the conversation and validates the claim. The Superannuation status is updated in real time and the issue resolved.

Proactive service delivery

Screenshot from ‘Lab+ future states series: proactive delivery’ video/ Credit: Lab+, Service Innovation Lab, DIA, NZ

The idea here is to provide opt-in categories of services that a person could be advised of, indirectly or directly, through third parties, and having a seamless follow through. It could be an automatically pushed service, such as a notification saying you are entitled to free travel, and you can get onto a bus and immediately start using it using your phone or credit card.

Or it could be a service where permission is sought to verify requirements to access the service. For instance, the person receives a notification from Auckland City Council informing him/her that he/she might be eligible for a rates rebate. Now, instead of that person having to prove that their income meets the criteria for the rebate, they are asked if they would be willing the authorise the City Council to verify that their income meets the eligibility test with the Inland Revenue Department (IRD).

This validation with user consent from a trusted entity which is the authoritative source of information of that item for government, ties in with what Ms. Waugh had told us earlier, “If we were to adopt a verifiable claims approach to the business of government, two key benefits emerge. Firstly, the citizen has improved control and privacy because they don't need to have bits of their information being copied and pasted to systems all over government… The benefit for government in this approach is the significant reduction in processing, data transfer, storage and other systems.”

Help me plan

There are many times in life when people need to plan, such as when they are moving, considering having a child, getting married, etc.

         People don‘t always know all the services, requirements and implications of a life event, which can make planning difficult.                              

The “Help me plan” mode of delivery can help here. But government has to be careful about not crossing the ‘creepy’ line.

Some services proactively delivered can be perceived as too intrusive or they simply miss the mark. So, the key is to enable people to understand and get the services they need (including the ones they don't already know about), while providing minimal information about themselves and their circumstances, in an anonymous/unauthenticated context.

For these types of interactions, we have a mode of delivery we call "Help me Plan". This prototype is being implemented as a working (but mocked up) service, specifically so we could dig below the surface to understand the functional requirements of such a solution.

SmartStart and NZReady are examples of this kind of concept. SmartStart gives parents easy online access to information, services and support during pregnancy and baby’s first years, while NZReady assists new and potential migrants with the planning of their migration journey from place of origin, through the move, and in the settling in period.

Lab+ took this further. “What if we could identify what all those conditions were across different rules, different agencies and different services, and then you can start to do some very clever things,” Ms. Waugh said. They took business rules from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) and turned them into code.

Image: Screenshot from "Help me plan" proof-of-concept / Credit: Lab+, Service Innovation Lab, DIA, NZ

A working proof-of-concept was produced, where starting with selections from among four areas of interest, a user is asked a series of questions, and based on the answers is informed about which services they might be eligible for, as seen from the screenshot above. The sequence of questions asked is critical to streamlining the process.

User testing revealed that users didn’t mind if they weren’t eligible, but they wanted transparency regarding what they were not eligible for and why. This kind of concept can help people to better understand their eligibility. If they would want to apply at some point, they can go and resolve the matter, perhaps through the conversational service. This also demonstrates how the three modes of service delivery might blend into each other.

Further work on this mockup service explored the use of blockchain for users to manage their own profile in a secure way, and share or validate information with government for the purpose of service delivery if and when required. It was an interesting experiment in user centered design around user control in engaging with government.

Reverse engineering the future states

Once the future states had been explored, the team reverse-engineered the future states. A blog post was published about the first attempt.

One of the key steps in the reverse engineering was to find reusable components and build prototypes. A simple example is a services register. Again, the Lab+ team worked with MSD to take their Family Services Directory and created a machine-readable version, which can be accessed via an API (application programming interface). Detailed blog post can be read here. The Lab+ team also created a test Central Government Services Register for experimentation.

         A front-end Services Finder and a back-end Services Register would provide benefits for New Zealanders, government agencies and other service providers.                              

At the moment, there is an Experimental central government services register available on Data.govt.nz. To implement the Services Register properly the ‘sources of truth’ would have to be identified where they exist. A fully functional Service Finder would draw on the Services Register and codify all the business rules around entitlements and conditions to those services, which is expected to be a challenging process. There is also the consideration of keeping the service up to date. A proposed process is as below:

Image credit: Lab+, Service Innovation Lab, DIA, NZ

The second point was exploring the idea of an ecosystem. It is assumed that third parties would want to build on top of government components, such as such as data or content, programmatic business rules, or transaction services. To test this assumption, the Lab+ team organised an exploratory workshop (a detailed account of the workshop can be downloaded here) with representatives from private, community and government sectors.

While participants were enthused about the concept, some were concerned that the workshop didn’t offer enough time to adequately explore such a transformative concept. Still by the end of two hours, all teams had contributed extensive ideas about what government components might be useful to build upon. They also built something tangible and provided extensive feedback about user needs, barriers and benefits of such a model. The teams tackled a broad range of issues from autonomous cars to neighbourhood engagement and predictive tools, to real time transport and routing applications.

         Ms. Waugh said about the models built, “The interesting thing about these is that all of them actually have both government and sector components, so they started to identify those and in assessing that work we can identify common components that if we built in government, should provide value for other sectors to build upon as a test of whether it would actually get reused. It is easy to build lego but let’s see what happens in the real world.”                              

Other reusable components might include programmable business rules, notification services or identity components, as well as myriad data, transaction and other components identified in the workshop.

Building prototypes collaboratively

DIA explored the notion of improving the SmartStart service including a potential future state that incorporates the three future state modes of delivery.

Another team comprising people from Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), Inland Revenue (IR), Commission for Financial Capability (CFFC) and Lab+ looked at the problem of students having difficulties understanding the factors that influence the size of their student loan and the value they gain from it.

The team storyboarded a prototype intended to help customers make their study and funding choices, showing key information (education level, income, outlook and related occupations) of a specific career (media and advertising). The prototype uses the concept of the “Team”- a support network to help customers navigate and make better study choices, consisting of family, future occupational outlook, sources for career and education advice, employment and financial tools+resources. It compares student loans amount and loan terms based on several scenarios ( education providers, funding sources, etc) and uses a graphic visualisation tool  to show the Return on Investment (ROI ) of a particular scenario.

Image credit: Lab+, Service Innovation Lab, DIA, NZ

What is next?

Ms. Waugh said, “The hypotheses have proven reasonably successful as a first key thing. Next steps would involve further validation and research but taking a pragmatic next step. What can we design, build, test, both in terms of what would help service delivery teams in agencies, and what helps private sector and community sector, and most importantly what helps people that need to be able to interact with government either directly or indirectly.”

The work program for Lab+ moving forward will be announced in coming weeks and you can join the Service Innovation announcements mailing list to keep up with news.

A mind map of the outcomes in themes created by Ms. Waugh is available here.

All the published material from Lab+ can be accessed at https://webtoolkit.govt.nz/blog/tag/labplus/ or below:

Storming and forming (May 3, 2017)Norming and performing (May 12, 2017)Meet the Lab+ Team (May 23, 2017)Industry and community needs for building on ‘government as a platform (June 1, 2017)Status update on Lab+: the final sprint! (June 7, 2017)Discovering, Measuring, Learning (June 13, 2017)Potential future states for government service delivery (June 21, 2017)Outcomes from the Industry and Community Sector Workshop on Govt as a Platform (June 28, 2017)Lab+: Collaboration (June 28, 2017)Reverse engineering the future states (June 30, 2017)Our “Integrated Services” Design Approach and Summary (July 11, 2017)Working together to improve outcomes for students (July 11, 2017)Lab+: All-of-Government Services Finder (July 14, 2017)Lab+: Why I took time away from a perfectly good job to take on a secondment (July 24, 2017)[1]All New Zealanders aged 65 and over receive New Zealand Superannuation payments (also known as the pension, National Super or Super).

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